Mud lined roads amidst ripe green sugarcane fields lead to a tiny colony of closely stacked, but half-built houses. Salim Sepi has been living in one of these barely completed shelters for the past four years. The colony, occupied mainly by Muslim farm labourers, inside Lui village, some 30 kms away from Muzaffarnagar city, was newly built back then to provide some sort of living space to the homeless victims of the turbulent Hindu-Muslim riots of 2013. Sepi, along with his wife, three children and aged mother, had made his way to Lui from his village Fugana 3 kms away. Fugana was among the nine worst-hit in Muzaffarnagar after the riots. “My brother’s son was slaughtered by the Jats,” says Sepi whose house was also burnt down.
“Akhilesh gave us Rs 5 lakhs as compensation. Had it been some other party in power, we don’t know if we would have got anything. Since we got the money we could get some land and make a house. Otherwise my mother would have died, my life would be destroyed. At least I have a shelter for my family now,” says Sepi as he remarks with full confidence that everybody from the colony would definitely vote for Akhilesh in the upcoming elections.
Akhilesh’s popularity in this little colony is uncontested. For those who fled their villages, he is the unanimously declared saviour. “Jinhone hum ujre hue ko basaya hum unhe hi vote denge. Humare jakham pe mallham lagai. Jo woh humein 5 lakh rupaye nahin dete toh kya pata hum kahan dhakke khate firte, humare bachhe mar jate. Unhone basa toh diya humein, (We will vote for those who helped us settle down and applied medicine on on our wounds. Had they not given us Rs 5 lakh who knows where we would go. Our children would have died. At least they helped us settled down)” says Aslam who also ran away from Fugana and took refuge in Lui.
The 2013 riots occurred just about a year after the Samajwadi Party’s sweeping victory in Uttar Pradesh. The real hero of the 2012 elections, however, was the young face of Akhilesh which had started capturing the imagination of the electorate ever since he led student protests against the Mayawati regime in 2008. Known to establish easy going personal relations with students in their campuses over conversations on bikes, football and technology, Akhilesh’s strength lay in the fact that he was a young leader who promised to do away with age old caste and communal based politics, riding on a formula of technology and development.
Akhilesh might very well have been the face and voice of UP’s youth. But for a state that has for years been voting along caste and communal lines, the real voter base of the SP was the Muslim and Yadav community. Established in the early 1990s under Mulayam Singh Yadav, the SP was one of the prime factors that brought about calm after the turmoil over Babri Masjid, earning the party patriarch the name “Mullah Mulayam”. If Mayawati was the voice of UP’s backward castes, Mulayam Singh was the hero of the state’s Muslims who support him till date.
However, a year after Mulayam’s son came to power, the Muzzafarnagar district on the western borders of the state witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots of the kinds the state had managed to ward off for over two decades. In fact, the district had remained largely insulated even during the Babri Masjid riots that caused much violence across vast stretches of North India. In September 2013 though, Muzaffarnagar was burning. Some 140 villages of the district saw the kind of massacre between Hindus and Muslims never seen before.
The problem started in August 2013 in Kawal where two Jat boys were beaten up and killed in retaliation for beating up a Muslim youth who had allegedly been troubling their sister. The knowledge of the brawl soon developed a communal angle and reached the local political leaders who left no stone unturned to flare up the situation. On one hand the murderers of the two Jat boys were let off, reportedly under orders of an SP leader. On the other hand the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), a local party supporting Jat interests called for a mahapanchayat in the following days which was attended by members of the BJP as well. The meeting that claimed to hold a discussion on ways to save their daughters and daughters-in-law from Muslim men was engulfed in slogans of “vande mataram” and “Bharat mata ki jai”. The mahapanchayat played the role of a major catalyst and instigated violence resulting in the loss of lives of both Hindus and Muslims. As knowledge of the violence spread across villages, several (majority Muslims) ran away from their villages and took refuge in surrounding areas.
In days preceding the UP elections, riots victims have nothing but praises to shower upon Akhilesh. However, soon after the riots, the Samajwadi Party’s government was under severe attack for not only poor management of the situation but also for having instigated the violence with the motive of polarising the two largest communities in the area-Jats and Muslims. As per a survey conducted by Lokniti for CNN-IBN in January 2014, about 45 per cent of the surveyed population of UP blamed the SP for the riots and 13 percent blamed the BJP. Among the Muslims too a quarter of the respondents pointed fingers at the SP, indicating a sharp shift in loyalties. The biggest evidence of the loss of vote bank of the SP though was the unprecedented victory of the BJP in the state in the 2014 elections.
Three years since the elections though the picture seems to have altered significantly, such that even those victims who did not receive any compensation from the SP, show full support for the young SP leader. Muhammad Islam who lives in Shaikul Hind Nagar, another colony inhabited by riots victims, says he ran away from his village and arrived here in just one set of clothes. Since then he has managed to set up some kind of roof for himself and his family with his own money. He never received any compensation from the Akhilesh Yadav led government. When asked about who he would vote for in the upcoming elections, he promptly responds that his vote would go to Akhilesh. “Humein toh muwavza nahin mila. Baki jo danga peerit wale hain jinhe mawavza mila, unki support mein humein thodi bohot riyadh mil gayi. Hum bhi apna aaram se tukda kha rahe hain, (We did not get any compensation. But other riot victims got. We got some relief through their support. We are also eating peacefully)” says Islam.
The sweeping victory made by BJP in 2014, however, is the cause of much worry for Akhilesh. When he spoke at a rally in Burhana, a small town in Muzaffarnagar district, the riots were barely on his mind. The ill effect of demonetisation was all that he spoke about apart from declaring new sops for his voters. “Achhe din ke bahane lambi line mein khade kara diye ( Everyone had to stand in long lines under the excuse of good days),” said Akhilesh to a crowd full of enthusiastic SP supporters.
However, Akhilesh’s urge to withdraw support from the BJP is definitely not well received by all. While on the one hand the protection meted out to Muslim victims by SP had clearly won their hearts, on the other hand it had left the Jat community, also affected by riots highly disappointed and further suspicious. Dharamveer Singh, a Jat landlord who lives in his two-storeyed cemented house in Gram Sukhtawa says he will definitely vote for Narendra Modi. “Sapa ne Hinduon ko toh kuch nahin diya. Dange mein Hindu mare bhi the. Unhe toh kuch nahin diya (SP did not give anything to the Hindus. Hindus had also died in the riots. They did not get anything),” says Singh as he goes on to explain that so many Hindu boys are still struggling under false allegations against them of molesting Muslim women. Asked why the Muslims fled from their villages, Singh says that most of them had loaned money from their landlords and found the riots to be a good excuse to run away and not return the money. “Jhagra toh Musalmanon ne hi shuru kiya tha, (The riots were started by the Muslims),” says Singh adding that he would be voting in the name of Hindutva alone.
Reputed for being the world’s largest jaggery market, most of the population here is divided along occupational lines of farming, manufacturing and trading in jaggery. Jats and Muslims who numerically make up the two largest communities in the district are both involved in the jaggery business, the former mainly being landlords and traders and the latter involved in farming sugarcane on the Jat held lands.
Up until 2013 though, the religious backgrounds of the jaggery producers of Muzaffarnagar had barely mattered. Having lived alongside each other for years, the Jats and Muslims more or less held unanimous political views. So sharply are borders drawn between the 2 communities now that a week preceding the 2017 Assembly elections the opinions of regarding the recent move of note ban made by the BJP government are widely differing.
Speaking about the impact of the recent demonetisation on the production and sale of sugarcane, Arun Khandelwal, president of the federation of jaggery traders in Muzaffarnagar, says: “We have from the beginning been purchasing products in cheques alone, so we did not face any difficulties. As a trader I can say that note ban would be very beneficial for fair trade practices.” Asked whether demonetisation was equally well received by the farmers he says that “they should not face any difficulties since they all have bank accounts. But they want to create pressure on the traders so they ask us to pay in cash.”
The farmers, however, have a different story to tell. The farmers union says the traders might not have faced any difficulties but the farmers are still not being able to acquire cash. Blaming the BJP for breaking the unity among Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, Mohammad Razaq, a member of the Kisan Union, says “the BJP has divided the farmers. Hindus and Muslims wish to come together again. So we will not vote for the BJP.”
As landlord Dharamveer Singh sits down to chat with his friends he can’t stop talking about the tense dynamics between Jats and Muslims. “Is baar ka election Hindu-Muslamanon ka hain. Takkar ka election hain yeh, (this time on the election is a competition between Hindu and Muslim.)” said Singh.